For the first time this season, we have an outright leader in Big Ten play. With Michigan's win over MSU last night, the Wolverines moved up 1 game on the Spartans and 2 games on everybody else in the conference. With nearly half the conference season over, things have begun to take shape. However, the race is long from over, especially considering that Michigan still has 5 games remaining against the top half of the conference. With this in mind, let's take a look at where things stand going ahead for some of the teams still in the running for the title:
1. Michigan (7-0)
There's no questioning that the Wolverines are in the best position of any team in the conference for the Big Ten title. Not only are they undefeated in conference play, but they have created a lot of space. Michigan is only up 1 game on MSU, but they are 2 games up on Iowa, and 3 games up on everybody else. Considering Michigan could be favored in every remaining game except one (Iowa on the road), catching up is going to be difficult. Plus, Michigan has already beaten #2, #3, #4, and #5 in the Big Ten standings already and only 1 of those 4 games came at home. Essentially, these teams have not only already lost to Michigan, but are going to have to play catch up and for everyone except Iowa, they are going to have to try it away from home.
The schedule going forward is also relatively forgiving for the Wolverines. Michigan plays each of the top 5 teams in the conference race twice, but they already have half of the matchups out of the way and 3 of the 4 road games against these teams already over. To have a 4-0 record in that scenario is very impressive. Sure, that road game against Iowa is going to be really tough, but for the most part, the battle against the top part of the conference should get easier. Maybe MSU is a wildcard due to some of their injuries, but playing them in Ann Arbor is a much different animal than playing them in East Lansing. The tricky part for Michigan is that they get a lot of the middle and lower Big Ten teams on the road. Teams like Ohio State, Indiana, Purdue, and Illinois can be very tricky on the road. Michigan has been fantastic on the road this year and should be favored in all these games with the possible exception of OSU, but you would obviously rather have these types of teams at home.
In terms of a projection, it's hard to see Michigan losing too many of these games. It's one thing to project some losses against top teams on the road, but Michigan's already beaten all the top Big Ten teams and have most of the tough road games out of the way. If you project the Iowa road game as a loss, project Michigan to lose one of the other road games (OSU, IU, PU), and at least one other slip up, the Wolverines would be sitting pretty at 15-3. What's crazy is that this projection could even be on the pessimistic side of things. However, given the depth of the Big Ten, it's probably realistic.
2. Michigan State (7-1)
MSU may be in the most peculiar position of any of the top teams in the conference. They are only 1 game out of the lead, but the concern is all regarding injuries. Both Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson missed the team's game against Michigan and we don't quite know when either will be back. We know Dawson is going to be out for nearly a month, but Payne could be back as early as next week. There's just a lot of uncertainty in the whole thing. A lot of people felt like MSU could have beaten Michigan if they had both of these guys available. Who knows? Maybe they do or maybe they both get into foul trouble. It's impossible for us to say, but going forward, it's pretty easy to say that Izzo would rather have these guys than not have them. Assuming at least Payne returns in the near future, the Spartans could win against anybody in any venue. They still control their own destiny with that rematch with Michigan awaiting, but they will need some help to get an outright title.
The schedule is admittedly tougher than Michigan's remaining schedule as well. Sure, they already got games with Michigan, OSU, Minnesota, and Indiana out of the way, but all but 1 of these games were at home. The Spartans still have Iowa twice, a road game against Michigan, a road game against Wisconsin, and a road game with Ohio State remaining at the end of the year. Whatever your opinion of those teams, the Spartans could realistically lose all of those games, especially considering that only 1 comes at home and several of them are going to happen with at least Dawson out of the lineup.
Projecting MSU is the hardest of any of these teams simply due to the fact that nobody knows who is going to be playing on almost any given night. If they can get healthy, they certainly could finish the year pretty strong and only lose a game or two. Unfortunately, some of the games just don't time well for MSU. If they have to go on the road against Iowa without Payne or Dawson, I don't like their chances. Also, as listed above, so many of those games are on the road that you almost know MSU is going to drop at least 1 or 2. MSU can still catch Michigan even if they lose against Iowa next week, but they're going to have to go on the road and beat some top teams. It's a must.
3. Iowa (5-2)
The Hawkeyes are not getting as much talk as they probably deserve, but they are still very much in the conference race. Not only are they only 2 games out of the lead with games against Michigan and MSU remaining, but like the Wolverines, they have gotten many of the tough games out of the way already. Going to Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan is not an easy thing to do, but Iowa was able to at least beat the Buckeyes. A whole lot is going to be in those games against MSU and Michigan, but Iowa at least has a decent chance.
The schedule is tough, but not really that bad. They have 2 games with Michigan State, a home game against Michigan, a home game against Wisconsin, a home game against Ohio State, a road game against Indiana, and a road game against Minnesota. None of those are gimme games, but it is important to note that the Hawkeyes play pretty well at home and it's not too hard to see them pulling out wins over teams like OSU and Indiana. The tough part here is that they do not control their own destiny. Considering this, they cannot lose to those middle tier Big Ten teams and absolutely have to steal a few games on the road.
The projection here is interesting because Iowa has a good shot to beat a lot of their opponents, especially considering they get a lot of the toughest games at home and should face an injured MSU. Assuming Iowa can knock off a decent share of wins, the biggest game is going to be that one at home against Michigan. If the Hawkeyes seriously want a shot at the Big Ten title, that is a must win.
4. Wisconsin (4-3)
Let's be honest, the Badgers are barely hanging around in this discussion. They were considered a Big Ten favorite in the preseason not only due to the quality of their team, but largely due to a very manageable schedule. They did not have to face either MSU or OSU on the road, which most perceived as a major gift. There's no doubt that avoiding those two teams for somebody like Northwestern or Illinois is a bonus. Unfortunately, Wisconsin has already dropped 3 games this season and the going is arguably going to get tougher.
The schedule may be easier than that of an MSU, but Wisconsin still has to face Michigan on the road, MSU at home, Iowa on the road, Ohio State at home, and Minnesota at home. The Badgers already lost to Michigan at home and Minnesota on the road, so they can't have too much confidence against either opponent. The Spartans are certainly a really good team and who knows if they get some guys back by that time. Iowa had Wisconsin on the ropes so going there and winning is not guarantee. Finally, OSU should at least be a pretty challenging game.
The projection here is not too great for Wisconsin. It's almost a guarantee Michigan, MSU, and Iowa are going to lose some games and the Badgers have opportunities to give each of them a loss, but gaining 3 games on Michigan with arguably as tough or tougher of a schedule? I'm not sure that's realistic. If Wisconsin loses another game, it's pretty hard to see them even keeping an outside chance. This is tough to see happening.
The pick here has to be Michigan. There are a few things worth considering that make the argument pretty convincing. First, the Wolverines have already beaten every other team in consideration with 2 of the 3 games on the road and has opened up at least a game lead on each of them. Second, you can make a pretty strong argument that Michigan has the easiest remaining schedule out of any of these 4 teams. Maybe that changes a bit if a teams like OSU or Indiana really start putting it together, but Iowa is the only top end Big Ten team that Michigan still has to face on the road and MSU and Wisconsin have the same exact challenge. Finally, Michigan also has the benefit of getting to sit on their couch and watch the other teams battle. Out of Iowa, MSU, and Wisconsin, they have only played 1 of their combined 5 head-to-head matchups. Essentially, there are some guaranteed losses coming for the other teams in the title hunt. Michigan is going to get some space simply because somebody has to lose. Even if MSU wins their 3 matchups, it would at least push Iowa and Wisconsin down to 4 losses and remove both from Big Ten title consideration. There is still a long way to go, but anyway you break it down, the Wolverines have taken firm control of the conference title race.